While OneNote natively supports handwriting on Windows and Android, most of us don't have the right pen-enabled hardware to use that functionality effectively. But Livescribe has an interesting and even affordable alternative, assuming you're already using an iPad or other iOS device: the Livescribe 3 smart pen lets you take notes and write on real paper and then sync that content to OneNote.
To say that I'm a bit behind on this Livescribe write-up is an understatement. I've had a review unit Livescribe 3 Smart Pen sitting in my home office for months, but something always seemed to pop-up and move it further back in the queue. But I shouldn't have waited: Used in tandem with OneNote, this is an amazing solution for note-takers, and it will get even better with a new update that ships this week.
If you're not familiar with Livescribe, here's how it works. You purchase one of the firm's smart pens—the Livescribe 3 I'm using costs about $150 retail in the US—and then take notes in a Livescribe "dot paper" notebook, which is a traditional and familiar paper-based notebook that is specially designed to work with the pens in unique ways. The pen comes with one 50-page starter notebook and of course you can buy more notebooks online ($8.95 and up depending on the notebook or multi-notebook package; Amazon has a great selection of Livescribe notebooks and other Livescribe accessories).
The pen itself is gorgeous and of high-quality make, materials and design. As you may know, I don't regularly take handwritten notes anymore, but I took to the Livescribe 3 very quickly. You twist a barrel in its center to turn it on, extend the actual ink-based pen point for writing, and, if you're near a compatible device, connect the two.
Livescribe makes a desktop application for Windows but I could never get the Bluetooth-connected pen to register, and after futzing around with it for more time than I care to admit to, I finally figured out the obvious: It really does only works with iOS. So I had to go through the Livescribe+ iPad app, something that could of course be a deal-breaker for the Windows-only guy.
Once I resigned myself to actually using an iPad, setup was straightforward enough: The pen pairs easily with the iPad app and then you download a firmware update and install it over the air to the pen.
Then you take notes. With the pen. On paper.
If you've not used a Livescribe pen in the past, this bit will be sort of amazing. You can see your notes appear in real time in the iOS app, as you write them in the Livescribe paper-based notebook. Not that you would necessarily do this normally. But it works. And it's really impressive. Distracting, even.
What you would normally do, of course, is take notes with the Livescribe 3 and then get them into OneNote somehow at a later time.
The promise? "Simply write on paper and watch everything appear instantly on your mobile device, where you can tag, search and convert your notes to text. You can send everything to OneNote so your handwritten notes and sketches are integrated with the rest of your important information."
In my initial testing of the Livescribe 3, the process for syncing your notes to OneNote was a bit inefficient. As you will see below, this situation is about to change for the better. But for now, let's look at the current/old way of doing things.
So you've taken notes in a meeting, class or whatever. And you want to get them into OneNote. From the Livescribe+ app in iOS, you have to display a notebook or notebook page and then tap the Share button. In the Share pop-up that appears, tap OneNote. (The first time you do this, you have to tap Send, select OneNote and then sign-in. You obviously must have OneNote installed on your iDevice as well.)
When you do this, syncing occurs, usually very quickly, and then your notes are in OneNote.
It does work. But there are a few issues.
First, it's a manual process: You have to choose to sync each notebook or notebook page to OneNote.
Second, while you can choose how notes sync—as a single PDF or with each page as a PNG image (the default)—neither is very elegant. The PDF option appears as an attachment, though you can later convert it to a printout. And the PNG image option, while, immediately readable, is ... well, it's an image. You can't search it or convert it to text. (The capability is there in OneNote, it just doesn't work.) I guess it's still preferable.
Third, you can't choose where notes sync. As with the Office Lens app before the recent upgrade, each sync creates a new page in the Quick Notes section of your default notebook.
So this seems fairly inelegant. But here's the thing. If you're already using OneNote to organize your life, this isn't such a terrible process. And it's about to get even easier.
As part of this week's OneNote news—Microsoft announced major updates to the Android and Windows (Modern) versions of OneNote, with the Android version getting handwriting support and the Windows version getting printing support and better PDF handling—there's word of a coming update to Livescribe+ that will make the OneNote integration more efficient and, yes, elegant.
Version 1.3 of the Livescribe+ app, due this week—the current version is 1.2.4—will let you configure the app to auto-send all of your Livescribe notes to OneNote. I don't see anything about choosing a default "send to" notebook, but since Office Lens was updated to provide this functionality, it's obviously possible.
Beyond the OneNote integration features I'm highlighting here, the Livescribe 3 provides a ton of other useful features. In fact, the Livescribe+ app for iOS does a lot of the things you'd want in OneNote, like search your handwritten notes (which is nicely accurate) and convert handwritten notes to text. What I'd really like to see here is a way to get that text into OneNote—as text—or be able to search imported Livescribe notes from within OneNote.
My guess is that both features—and more—are coming to the product's OneNote integration. Short term, I'm curious to see this week's update, but I still feel like this is a great solution to anyone who has adopted OneNote—as you should—and is using an iPad or other iOS device out in the world (for whatever reason, no judging). Frankly, I've only touched on the OneNote integration features here, on purpose. But there is a lot more here to explore, and this is a truly innovative solution for anyone who wishes to take handwritten notes in a decidedly 21st century fashion.